What's Alive, What's Jive

For auto dealers, working the new-model season used to be a pretty simple affair: Hang up the New '64 Models are Here! banner, sit back and let 'em come to you. That's when there was a grand total of maybe a dozen manufacturers and, say, 70 nameplates from which buyers could choose. According to Ward's data, the '05 model year brings well in excess of 300 nameplates. Customers now have so many places

Bill Visnic

October 1, 2004

12 Min Read
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For auto dealers, working the new-model season used to be a pretty simple affair: Hang up the “New '64 Models are Here!” banner, sit back and let 'em come to you.

That's when there was a grand total of maybe a dozen manufacturers and, say, 70 nameplates from which buyers could choose. According to Ward's data, the '05 model year brings well in excess of 300 nameplates. Customers now have so many places to go with their dollars some literally show up at the lot with scorecards in hand.

All that diversity may be great for the consumer, but for dealers — particularly multi-line franchisees — it presents pre-ordering challenges predecessors could never imagine. Of 300-plus nameplates, it's certain more than a few are going to be turkeys.

Who wants to be the one responsible for bulking up order books with '05's incarnation of the Edsel, the Pacer or the Aztek?

That's where Ward's now world-famous (or infamous) “Fearless Showroom Forecast” fits in. Each year, we pretend we know more about your business than you do by identifying the new models most likely to succeed. And those to avoid like Hurricane Ivan, Frances and Charley.

Moreover, exposed as we have been to decades of manufacturers' new-model propaganda, we've become reasonably adept at differentiating between cool and bull. Although it's not our nature to gloat (or is it?), we point to a few of last year's calls (see Oct. '03 Ward's Dealer Business p.19) that prove our instincts are without equal:

  • We instructed you to run with Cadillac's SRX — but only V-6 versions. Early in the model year, Caddy admitted it filled the pipeline with way too many overpriced, overstuffed V-8 models. Although the SRX remains too expensive (we predict a Pacifica-like “repositioning”), parent General Motors Corp. is whittling down SRX's once-ludicrous days' supply.

  • Then there's the GTO. We said, “Don't bet the farm until a restyle happens.” The new-age “Goat” fell embarrassingly flat. A restyling tweak is happening. We see GTOs (201 days' supply at the end of August) advertised for $26,000.

  • Other prognostications included “buy” ratings on Dodge's strong Durango, Acura's brilliant TSX, Mazda's 3, BMW X3 and Toyota's still-surging Prius. Anybody could've called Ford Motor Co.'s all-new F-150 a no-brainer order, which we did.

  • Meanwhile, we presciently warned you away from Nissan's pudgy and pricey Maxima, Chrysler Group's sexy but ill-advised Crossfire (212 days' supply), Chevy's silly SSR (312 days' supply) and Volkswagen's over-reaching Touareg and Phaeton (416 days' supply!).

That said, a trivial amount of lousy advice extended to our irrational exuberance for Mazda's RX-8 — great car, great price, inexplicable showroom dog — and GM's midsize pickups.

That performance means this year's “Fearless Showroom Forecast” is more fearless than ever. We've heard the hype, we've driven the cars and now we're prepared to tell you the best way to spread your inventory dollars among the raft of new-for-'05 models in what some manufacturers and industry pundits are calling the “Year of the Car.”

General Motors

There's probably as much action as the Chevrolet division has a right to handle, what with an all-new Corvette and Cobalt, the overdue replacement for the entry-level Cavalier.

No self-respecting Chevy dealer should have to be told that the first year of an all-new Corvette (this is the sixth generation) is money in the bank, but it's even more so now that the evergreen ‘Vette is probably as good as it's ever been, with a smoking 400-hp 6L small-block V-8 and tidier dimensions.

Yeah, the head-on styling, thanks to the sad decision to ignore heritage with fixed headlights, reeks of Mitsubishi 3000GT, but the new Corvette is the real deal. Order with abandon.

Can we recuse ourselves from passing judgment on the all-new Cobalt? We'd like to think economy minded buyers will spring at the all-new Delta front-wheel drive platform, surprisingly shapely sheet metal and up-market equipment levels, but Chevy let the Cavalier become so Jurassic we wonder if anybody's paying attention anymore. A cautious thumbs-up — stay with lower trim levels and forget the 205-hp SS, which merely is Chevy misguidedly thinking “youth” will want one.

Big news at Cadillac is the all-new, rear-wheel drive STS, now sharing the excellent Sigma platform with the CTS and SRX. This car will do well because Caddy apparently learned from its overly ambitious SRX pricing scheme and has set a competitive price on a competitive car. The new STS is likely to acquire a reputation as a “smart” buy versus BMW and Mercedes competition.

Some say STS's styling is too staid — Cadillac can't seem to win — and we still don't think the interior gives off the same quality cues as the European and upper-crust Japanese competition, but STS is a decent bet right out of the box.

Oprah gave away $7 million worth of the new Pontiac G6 — essentially the Grand Am replacement — but we're not sure that will be enough “bounce” to make this watershed car the winner that Pontiac says (and thinks) it should be. The Epsilon front-drive platform is essentially decent, and the styling is the cleanest thing Pontiac has shopped in years, but somehow the G6 exudes an aura of “ho-hum.”

Maybe it's that the lower-trim versions we've seen look pretty plain. Or maybe it's GM's everything-old-is-new-again use of an iron-block, overhead-valve 3.5L V-6 as the G6's volume engine. GM's “performance” division apparently will get the excellent 3.6L DOHC V-6 sometime in the future. We say the buzz exceeds the reality on G6. In six months it'll be just another midsize sedan. So don't overextend yourself.

Now, Buick should be an interesting case for '05. Two bread-and-butter sedans, Regal and Century, are replaced by one bread-and-butter sedan with Lexus headlights and a less-plastic interior, the “new” LaCrosse. For some unfathomable reason, there's a performance-targeted LaCrosse, the CSX, sucking up the 3.6L DOHC V-6s that Pontiac's G6 should get.

The LaCrosse moveth Buick's needle not one iotath. However many Regals and Centurys your Buick store always moves, count on that many new LaCrosses. A better gamble may be Terraza, the Buick-badged version of GM's renamed, repositioned “crossover sport van” minvans. Just as Rendezvous surprised us all, so too will a Buick minivan, which should be a showroom winner.


It's the year of the car in Dearborn. The problem is, the car Ford is touting — the all-new Five Hundred — looks like it belongs to the year 1994.

Five Hundred's already-dated styling is accompanied by underachieving drivetrains (there's modest technical intrigue from the optional continuously variable transmission).

But its biggest problem is called the Chrysler 300. The Chrysler Group's brassy large car casts a large shadow on Five Hundred. Nonetheless, we say Ford buyers will be so delighted to have something new in the showroom that the number of first-year takers should be decent, and wisely unassuming pricing won't hurt.

Although it's stodgy, we don't see how you can lose on Five Hundred, or better yet, its more-appealing crossover version, the Freestyle. Go 70/30 Freestyle/Five Hundred and don't look back, because even if that dynamic duo doesn't turn out to be too dynamic in ringing the cash register, the all-new Mustang certainly will.

The once-antediluvian Mustang now rides on a purportedly new chassis, and its V-6 and V-8 both are uprated, but it doesn't matter, because the brilliant new-old sheetmetal is dead on target for the Mustang buyer. Here's the best tip you'll get this year: Don't be distracted by the testosterone-laden GT; the non-GT styling actually is cleaner. And we don't have to tell you the V-6 always has been the Mustang moneymaker.

And there's no losing with the nicely executed Escape Hybrid. It's the first production vehicle to marry a fuel-sipping gasoline-electric hybrid drivetrain to SUV architecture, making it a more attractive proposition to those who want to save the planet but don't really want to cramp their lifestyle while doing so. Get on the bandwagon.

Compared to the last couple of extremely lean years, it's happy days at your Ford store again. Between Five Hundred, Freestyle and Mustang, feel free to book that cruise.


Chrysler dealers likely only have a moment to read this, because they're busily completing more orders for the enormously well-received 300 fullsize sedan. Play it for all it's worth, because the cupboard's actually almost bare — this is one quiet car company for 2005.

Make hay while the sun shines with the 300 series — Chrysler's recent large-car history is one of a strong initial year or 18 months, then steady nosedive. The 300's bold styling, like that of its LH-platform predecessors, has potential to quickly lose shelf life. So as soon as all-wheel drive is available for the 300, order big.

The Crossfire's a no-win proposition, despite the addition of the 330-hp SRT-6 variant. The standard $35,000 Crossfire's too much money for your store, so how is a $45,000 model going to improve that equation?

Dodge has an all-new Dakota that should go to the head of the class. Problem is, enrollment gets smaller every year in the compact truck segment. Dakota will outperform this dying segment for 18 months. Then fire up the incentive calculator.

The Jeep franchise finally gets an all-new Grand Cherokee, about three years after every other manufacturer has eaten your lunch. To add insult, the new Grand pretty much looks like the old. And we're not sure if the Hemi V-8 really is a good fit with this vehicle and the customers it attracts. It's new, so you've got to run with it, but we think it's best to order the least-expensive models you can get away with, and wait to see if buyers really want to “upscale” their Grand Cherokee experience.

Meanwhile, the Internet blog boards are buzzing about the diesel-powered Liberty. Although the 4-cyl. turbodiesel isn't really the best available in the DC universe, the diesel freaks don't seem to care (or know). They're just happy to see a diesel SUV available. Order all you can wrangle.


The new RL flagship looks as failsafe as it gets. Acura's models are getting more on-target, and the RL — with standard all-wheel drive and a truly husky 3.5L V-6 that churns out 300 hp — should be a comparative winner.

Long-term selling power depends on whether the car wins a reputation as a serious driver's tool or just another too-soft Acura flagship. Still, go heavy because first-year sales will be brisk.


Man, the Odyssey has been good, right? Count on the all-new '05 job to be better. We think styling has taken a step back, but inside the new Odyssey is pure brilliance. Every unit you can find is money in the bank.

Same story, maybe more so, for the Accord Hybrid. The hybrid junkies just won't go away, and they're not averse to paying over sticker when need be. Accord Hybrid is an improvement on the currently available hybrid formula, being less-funky than the Prius and a lot faster, too. We can't imagine the Accord Hybrid not being a giant hit, so plan accordingly.


The new model is Tucson. The brand is hot. Tucson is shapely, has an unusual-for-the-segment V-6 and, like most Hyundais, is a comparative bargain. Customers will be beating down the door for this puppy. Be there when it falls to accept their down payment.

Land Rover

If you've taken the plunge for the Rover store, you probably don't need extra advice, but because all-new Land Rovers are rare, here's our two cents on the '05 LR3: nice truck, hefty, hefty price for a midsize SUV in a market awash with premium and semi-premium midsize SUVs.

If you're looking to get more volume over the ancient Discovery the LR3 replaces, it'll probably happen. But volume is a relative term with Rover, and the business model isn't exactly overly rewarding for Land Rover parent Ford, so LR3 could be a make-or-break vehicle for all parties. LR3 — kind of cool, but kind of weird — also may be an interested test case for the longevity of the niche-SUV market.


The new SLK roadster is impressive. Great power from a new 3.5L DOHC V-6, superb looks, fair price. Better yet, the '05 feels like Mercedes is returning to its former high standard of build and material quality. The easiest sell you'll have this year.

Meanwhile, Mercedes also is unleashing a raft of new AMG high-performance models, including the wild SL65 AMG (604 hp!) and G55 AMG-ed SUV. Nobody seems able to figure out how AMG keeps growing, but get on board. On the other hand, we're not wary of the CLS500 sedan that's meant to look like a coupe. Why wouldn't buyers just go for the S-Class? Stay away.


With its car lineup recently updated, the Nissan sell this year is trucks. We think the Pathfinder, now using modified underpinnings of the Titan pickup, is certain to appeal to the same loyal audience, so it's an easy bet.

Also new for '05 are the Xterra and Frontier. Both are coming into an ever-more-crowded segments, and we don't hold much hope for Frontier, in particular. Not only is the compact-pickup segment in a prolonged death throe, there's an all-new Dodge Dakota and Toyota Tacoma to deal with. Frontier comes out the loser both ways; stock up at your own risk, while Xterra might be a bit easier to move.


Although the compact (or is it now “midsize?”) pickup segment hardly is the best place to stake your fortune, somebody's got to sell some compact pickups, and Toyota's rich-looking, rich-feeling new Tacoma appears well-placed to steal share from the competition. We expect strong sales, particularly in the West and South.

Finally, you're on your own with the Scion franchise. Some days we hear wonderful things. Other times, the Scion proposition sounds as if it's ready to explode. Toyota tells us dealers are lining up to make the investment in the stores, but one dealer tells us he wouldn't take Scion on a bet — the margins aren't there.

Bill Visnic is editor of Ward's Engine and Vehicle Technology Update newsletter.

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